A History of LoFi

LoFi has gone from meaning low recording technology to intentionally nostalgic sounds. Here’s how it happened.

LoFi used to refer to one thing: Low Fidelity. It meant how much a recording held the faithfulness to its original sound. During the 80s, when Tascam released its Portasound 4, it paved the way for artists to start ditching record labels and truly making their own recordings. This technology basically kicked off an era of garage band music, as cassettes of the latest groups were passed up and down the block. Sebadoh, Neutral Milk Hotel, and even Bruce Springsteen made it big with the rise of these four track recorders. This was not professional equipment at all, it was, as DJ William Berger coined the term in 1984, decidedly “Low-Fi”. The artists of the time weren’t intentionally trying to sound like Alan Lomax recording early blues music, they were just using what they had at the time and couldn’t afford to pay a recording studio.

The Alan Lomax recordings personify “lo-fi” technology

At this time, the term specifically referred to the quality of the recording. What LoFi means now is decidedly different. As time progressed putting a distance between the “mp3 Age” and the “Vinyl Age”, it transformed in meaning to capture the nostalgic sounds of cassettes and vinyls. Now, people intend to sound like Alan Lomax, not because they’re limited by the technology, but because that sound brings with it a certain feeling.

Various genres have gone LoFi, from house to rock, all trying to capture that analogue warmth. Mostly though using digital methods and computer emulations to do it. The LoFi hiphop of today, commonly referred to as chillhop, is an instrumental mix of downtempo boom bap beats and jazz, along with a variety of cuts from anime or anything that feels nostalgic.

What productions is LoFi often used for?

LoFi stock music is often used for modern commercials that are looking for either an “urban” vibe or something either nostalgic or relaxing. It’s also great for lounge or street scenes. It’s a kind of rhythmic meditation, music great for the background or to help focus.

Check out our latest royalty free LoFi stock music album, Smooth Frequencies.

Lo-fi hip hop stock music royalty free

History of LoFi

There are various genres that have gone LoFi, though when the term is used alone, it’s most often paired with hiphop. If you type it into YouTube, you’ll no doubt get a long list of channels with anime scenes. This marriage of anime and hiphop isn’t at all coincidental and is in a way a shoutout to the Kung-Fu/samurai roots that are a strong part of hiphop culture.

90s hip hop

The Asian connection isn’t just a modern YouTube device. Kung-fu and samurai movies were a mainstay in African American culture, going all the way back to Enter the Dragon-inspired Carl Douglas and his observation that everybody was Kung-Fu fighting. It came to the forefront in the hiphop mainstream with the Wu-Tang Clan and their triple platinum breakout album, Enter the Wu-Tang and peaking perhaps with the release of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog.

Carl Douglas pointing out what everyone was doing down in Funky Chinatown

Hiphop has its roots in African American house parties of the 1970s, when DJs would play out beats from their vinyl record collection, laying in samples here and there from other records, while the MC would take the mic and spit out their rhymes. By the mid-1980s, various techniques using tape tracks, samplers like Akai’s MPC, and spinning vinyl records allowed artists to chop up those old vinyl beats to make full length recordings, and “boom bap” was born. Though Wu-Tang’s producer Rza, along with other producers like Q-Tip, and Prince Paul, made it big but “didn’t go pop”, J Dilla was the real name behind the movement that would carry on into LoFi.

A long list of J Dilla’s instrumentals, almost no difference to modern chillhop

Boom bap was personified by samples of drums and other random noises like karate chops and jazz licks, using them in such ways that mimicked an actual drum kit plus effects. Compare this to genres of the time like the British Big Beat that were attempting to create completely inhuman sounds through sampling. Boom bap wasn’t seeking to create anything new like those movements, but rather recreate the sounds of those house parties of the 1970s.

A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip was one of the pioneers of boom bap

Boom bap phased out of the public light in the mid-90s when lawsuits lined up over using sampled music. The sampling led to a series of legal battles that didn’t favor the genre. It was still legal, but now it had to come with a long list of permissions. Each sound used – from the kick to the snare to the hihats – were often from different sources, making getting those permissions almost impossible. This led most producers to just abandon the genre and move on to experiment with other styles.

Bedroom Producing

Vinyl crate-digging didn’t become obsolete, but with the rise of computer technology and bedroom producers, it underwent a huge change. While other genres had entered into the mainstream, bedroom producers had started experimenting making their own beats and sounds – essentially making samples that sounded like they were sampled from something famous, but were in fact original. The rise of these royalty free sample libraries led to a rebirth of the boom bap genre, but now under a different name: LoFi hiphop.

Enter Nujabes from Tokyo, Japan. Nujabes was a hip hop fanatic, and owned two record stores in Tokyo as well as a Japanese hip hop record label. In his way, he started up using legal and self-produced samples, borrowing heavily from the jazz and boom bap styles. Nujabes showed the world of bedroom producers that they could be doing something similar. It became styled as “Chillhop” and introduced the use of sampled tape and vinyl crackles, so that it has that LoFi feel.

Nujabes’s seminal album

Nujabes was behind the soundtrack to the Japanese anime, Samurai Champloo, which was the final key in the marriage between hip hop and Asian culture. Now not only was hiphop citing anime, but it had come full circle: anime was now citing hip hop. “It neatly ties together key elements of the genre that are otherwise seemingly disparate,” writes music journalist Victoria Vouloumanos in a Medium essay. “Anime, hip hop, Japanese aesthetics and elements, atmospheric sounds, samplings, nostalgia, downtempo, trip-hop, electronica.”

The theme to Samurai Champloo

LoFi hiphop, or chillhop, is made to sound old and low quality, even though it’s created using modern technology and techniques. It’s dishing up a kind of ersatz nostalgia perfect for online meditations, driving, and study and has been consistently one of the top music genres on Spotify since breaking through to the mainstream in 2017.

Add some chillhop flavor to your production, editing the length and mix as you need, using our app and our Smooth Frequencies album, a great mix of royalty free lofi stock music.

Listen now royalty free stock music button

2021-03-03T11:41:23+00:00March 8th, 2021|Albums, Music history|

About the Author:

Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, after a long bout of traveling the world, Shawn Basey finally settled down in the fantastic town of Tbilisi, Georgia in the steps of the Caucasus Mountains. Working as the main blog and content writer and editor for Create Music since February 2020, he also plays accordion, makes electronic music, writes novels, and helps bars, podcasters and YouTubers in the behind the scenes during his free time.